01 November 2011

Interview: Thom Powers & Alisa Xayalith from The Naked and Famous


Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. Words which propelled The Naked and Famous into the ears and record collections of tens of thousands of New Zealanders. The huge chorus of that song struck a chord further afield than our shores too. After a year playing shows around the world, and on the eve of what looks set to be a successful return to our shores, front-folk Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith sat down for a yarn with VOLUME about tall poppies and living up to the hype.

"I feel privileged and a little confused as to why it's worked out for us," says Powers.

"We never really thought things would get this grand, to the scale of what it is," agrees Xayalith, "Or we didn't think it would happen for us this year!"

It's certainly been a rapid rise for the five-piece. The single Young Blood went straight in at number one on the New Zealand charts and earned the band a coveted Silver Scroll Award. The debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You was also a number one, and the group have received six nomintions at the 2011 NZ Music Awards. They've spent the last year performing shows throughout Europe, and at major festivals like Reading, Leeds and Glastonbury. They're currently in the US, where they played the famous Lollapalooza festival, gathering some famous fans along the way.

"I don't know of any greater achievement that when people who have inspired me say that I've inspired them," says Powers, recalling recent tweets from Mark Hoppus (Blink182) and Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle), "I grew up listening to those bands, walking around brooding to them at high school, and here's this guy saying 'dude, it's awesome'. It's those kinda moments you just get stopped in your tracks."

"I mean, I had my sights set on the bFM Top Ten," he recalls, "And we did that and then it just snowballed from there. Now it's to the point where things are happening for us that we had no ambition for. Sometimes we have to work out what it is and sometimes it's just whatever, let's not be too pretentious about this. If we can reach anyone - it doesn't really matter what the avenue is - if we can convert someone to be a fan of our band then that's great."

Some in the scene here in New Zealand bandy about the term 'overnight success', and there's a feeling these opportunities have come to you too easily. Do you think that's fair?

"Nah," says Powers, pointedly, "I don't know how anyone could say that."

"Sometimes it can annoy me," says Xayalith, "It reminds me how much New Zealand can be a goldfish bowl and people just get caught up in that very small town mentality."

"The tall poppy thing in New Zealand seems kinda cute to me now seeing how the rest of the world works," agrees Powers.

"If you want to put it in simple terms," continues Xayalith, "Somebody liked our music and wanted to take it to the rest of the world. We got our big break with someone from overseas fell in love with Young Blood and we got plucked out of New Zealand, and that was more than we could hope for."

Do you feel pressure to create a "Young Blood Part Two"?

"I've always been thinking about that and the challenge really excites me," enthuses Powers.

"And Thom's so good, so driven, he can write anywhere.He does little bits here and there every day," explains Xayalith, "We've already got a lot of songs built up and I know there are some really good ones in there."

"We've met bands who can't write on tour," says Powers, "And we're going 'wow, we're really a little further ahead here'."

Part of the reason the band have moved ahead so quickly is their crack management team.

"What happens behind the scenes is a large part of why bands get out of bed in the morning," says Powers, "Paul and Campbell at CRS have helped us out in more ways that I can even remember. They're like surrogate fathers!"

"We also have a great record label," adds Xayalith, "When Fiction Records heard our album they didn't want to change anything. They knew we had a very strong vision of what we were, and they really respected that. I think that's what a lot of bands need to have these days if they want to be able to survive - they need to have a strong vision of their own."

Almost a year to the day since the band showcased their vision, performing their lauded debut album, they're returning to our shores to play at the Music Awards and the Auckland Town Hall. What's changed in the live show since we saw you last?

"The touring live band we've become is something I don't think we would ever have had an opportunity to become in New Zealand," says Powers, "But nothing's really changed. We're still showcasing an album that we feel very confident about and proud of."

"I remember going to see my favourite bands and hearing the songs in all their glory, so to speak, and it just felt like such a privilege and such a pleasure," he explains, "You had this expectation of wanting to hear your favourite songs, and your expectation gets blown away because it's just so fucking loud!"

This interview originally appeared in VOLUME magazine issue #009.

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